American Studies Takes Care: An Interview with ASA President Roderick Ferguson

By Sarah MesleNovember 6, 2018

American Studies Takes Care: An Interview with ASA President Roderick Ferguson
THIS WEEK, the American Studies Association will host its annual conference in Atlanta. Organized around the theme “States of Emergence,” this ASA meeting will also surely be a moment to reflect on the still unknown (at the time of this writing) results of the election. LARB senior editor Sarah Mesle spoke with ASA president Rod Ferguson about the possibilities of what might emerge — politically, subjectively, spiritually — from intellectual engagement with American Studies in the crises of our present time.


SARAH MESLE: We’re talking today in the midst of the debacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, and our conversation will be published on election day — we don’t know yet what kind of intensity that day may have — but I want to start with something I read today, that I know has been influential for your work, in preparation for this interview: the Combahee River Collective Statement. The line that struck me most was: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.”

This whole statement struck me as a complete shot in the arm in this difficult time, and it made me want to ask: Do you see the ASA as being a kind of way for people to care for their own liberation?

RODERICK FERGUSON: Absolutely. The ASA has been for so many years and for so many of us a place for people to think really seriously about questions like: What is racial liberation? What is gender liberation? What does disability revolution look like? How do we study these things in an effort to produce them?

This is one reason why we’ve just really seen the numbers of the organization go up. It’s also why people who come to the ASA for the first time ask how it became so diverse. It’s a kind of way station for those of us who take liberation seriously, and who take seriously the production of alternative societies. It is a way station for people to think deliberatively and imaginatively about those things.

The theme this year is “States of Emergence,” and it asks us to consider what might emerge in emergencies — what’s made available in the temporalities of the state and the crisis. You decided on this theme a year ago. What has the theme meant to you over the course of this strange year?

You mentioned that reading the Combahee River Collective Statement felt like a shot in the arm. Something like the ASA convention can be a place for people to gather to produce that kind of shot in the arm. But the theme was also chosen at a moment when people were just struggling with the fact and the aftermath of Trump’s appointment as president — and I use that term advisedly! — but also what was so inspiring about the days and weeks after that appointment were the ways that people were really thinking creatively and purposefully about how we could respond. You know, people were having meetings in their homes who had never been activists before. And people who were more seasoned activists trying to restrategize, for a new moment in US history. So the theme was pointing toward that energy.

I think it’s also important to keep those two things in mind: that’s the dialectic. In tragedy, there’s also the possibility for new forms of triumph. And that’s very important not only as a kind of historical observation, but also a principle for life, and for living. And it seems to me that those kinds of observations and principles are what we have to hold on to in a moment that looks really bleak.

I suppose it’s worth thinking about this dialectic in mind with universities as well. Your work has discussed how there has often been a closing down of ideas when interdisciplinary projects become institutionalized. So the flip side might be that in this moment when it can feel so scary that institutions seem so fragile, that might actually be a kind of intellectual opportunity. 

Last year, when I talked to Kandice Chuh, she talked about how important it was to her that the ASA was an association, not an institution. Do you agree? What can differently emerge in those two states?

What I hear there is that the association is a way to kind of keep alive a sense of possibility, or push back against the kind of shutting down that is so characteristic of institutions and institutionalization. I think that the best way to proceed as folks within the ASA — and this is not just the leadership but the members too — is that we always have to be vigilant about making sure that the association outweighs the institutionalization, you know?

And we have to remember that the ASA is as vulnerable as any other institution, and that it has the same vulnerabilities as a discipline, to collapse into the institutional calcification. So part of our vigil, much of our vigil, has to be about how do we keep the association and therefore the sense of possibility and the realization of them alive, recognizing that there are, at every point and every angle, all of these seductions and pressures for it to become restrictive, and for the definition of American Studies to become restrictive. And you know that’s a vigil! We can’t assume that simply because it’s interdisciplinary that it’s insulated.

I want to pick up on your word there, vigil. One thing your work is known for is inaugurating the idea of “queer of color critique.” What was at stake when you asserted this phrase, and what’s at stake now, in the use of the word “critique”? It strikes me as a word that’s in a sort of middle state between something more observational, like “queer of color analysis” versus, on the other side, “queer of color resistance.”

Now you’ve just been talking about the need to have an American Studies vigil. Are “vigil” and “critique” words that work together for you?

Yeah, for me they are, right, because when I decided what to call it — and I mean, I remember the moment — I really thought about should I call it queer of color “critique” or “studies”? And I was like: I’m going to call it critique. And first of all that’s because it’s the idea my friends and I had come to; it was always a collective sort of conversation. It was a literal dinner in graduate school when we came up with it.

Okay now, I have a lot of questions! I’m really trying to picture this field-making dinner. What did you eat?

Ha! I don’t remember what we ate but we’re all good cooks so I know it was good! I probably made dessert, because I’m a baker.

I love so much the idea that queer of color critique came out of this dinner party, it seems like this beautiful “In search of our mentor’s dinner parties.”

Yes! So around dessert time —

— around your baking —

— Yeah, over the baking, we got into this whole conversation about the new direction for queer studies. And Chandan Reddy said that the new direction for queer studies needs to be in political economy. All of us understood that he meant race and political economy. And then, as someone who was dissertating in sociology, and who since undergrad had read a lot of Marx, and been taught a lot of Marx, I thought: Okay, I can take a stab at this. That’s really how it began. It was a dinner party conversation, and I took the dinner party conversation really seriously.

And then, when I was revising my dissertation I called Chandan up one night and I said, I was thinking about our conversation at that dinner, let me run this idea by you, I’m trying to do this stuff that’s a kind of queer, anti-racist reading of Marx. And then I read it to him over the phone and he said, oh my gosh, you’re doing it. [Laughs.] So then when I finished the dissertation and was turning it into a book, working with the great editor Richard Morrison, there was a moment when I had the chance to reconsider: is it queer of color critique or queer of color studies, like queer studies?

And I decided on critique because I wanted something that would preserve that sense of possibility and the sense of informality. I thought that if I went with studies it would congeal into something was more like a discipline. And I didn’t want the point to be: Is there going to be a queer of color critique major or whatever?

Right because the term has a quality of dismantling to it. Like: Not necessarily adversarial, but somewhat!

Right. The point is to produce a critique and a practice. The point isn’t to become a program, a department, a major. And in that time, I was also trying to channel a sort of Marxism, Marxism as a critical movement. You don’t get a PhD in Marxism, or I hope not!

Well listen, I have a lot of thoughts about the way Marxism rose as a hegemony in academic departments!

Sure. Part of what I have learned, and part of what you’re saying, is that everything is vulnerable to institutionalization.

Well, and just like bro-ishness, to take a term that can go with Marxism — the way it can become a sort of personal wedge for self-assertion.

Yeah, exactly! And that was my motivation for writing the second book, The Reorder of Things, when I realized that all of this stuff is vulnerable, including queer of color critique, to that sort of formalism or egoism. When it’s supposed to be about intellectual and political clarity.

I’ve talked over the last few years with ASA presidents who had backgrounds in queer studies, in indigenous studies, in labor history, in Asian-American studies … how does your perspective shape how you feel about your role?

Well, I’m not sure how many people know this, but I’m from rural Georgia. And that background and my intellectual background — which didn’t start just when I left rural Georgia — are really important to me. It matters to me that at Howard University I was given bell hooks and Cornel West and Foucault in the same class with Hume and Plato.

How beautiful!

Yeah, it was lovely! And it wasn’t until years later that I realized: Oh! That really shaped how I think and work. In my work I’m always putting contemporary social theorists together with classical ones. It doesn’t seem strange to me to put Immanuel Kant together with Toni Cade Bambara. That was all stuff I learned at Howard!

And in terms of my own personal background — when I was growing up, the time I was discovering Black diasporic literatures was also the moment when I was becoming an activist — in high school, with friends of mine, around the racial inequalities in our country. And so at the same time that I was reading the Négritude poets or Toni Morrison, these people really trying to work out their relationship to modernity, I was in a rural setting where we were trying to address the issues that black rural folks just have to contend with, about educational and economic inequalities. And also I was fed stories from my grandparents and older folks in the neighborhood about histories of slavery and histories of indigeneity.

I love that you said you were “fed” stories; it seems to go well with the grad school dinner party! And also, going back to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, your story seems to evoke the different ways that creative work is produced and taken in — through flowers you see or food you eat.

Yes! Alice Walker talks about her mother’s artistry in her gardening; my mother was a singer, and a really powerful one. People would come from out of town to hear mama sing. So, if we’re talking about the states of emergence that happen in emergencies, my mama sang in a way that got me through. As a kind of art form that she was dedicated to, that was a way to kind of meet life with life.

What is Alice Walker saying at the end of the title essay? That it’s not so much that our mothers sang, that they kept alive the idea of song?

Right! So for me, the theme, and the way I see my presidency, is to keep alive … a song, an emergence, a space for creative negotiation.

Well, here is a question I always try to get to. Most basically it’s: How do you define American Studies? But what I’m particularly interested in is your vernacular version of this question: If you’re sitting next to someone on a plane and they asked, “What is American Studies?” What would your account be?

I always think that’s an answer that has to come in stages. First, it’s a field that addresses not just the history, but the figure of the US and of America, in all of its meanings. If you think about the US as a figure, you can think about it as a philosophical idea, or an idea within political theory or literature. But then, and here’s the second stage, you can go on to talk about how it’s figured by other people who are not Americans, or who, because of their minoritized status, don’t count as Americans. America shows up in various places in people’s lives, even if they don’t come here: whether it be in the companies they work for, or the wars they contend with, or the missiles that land on them.

Here I’ll just note that if you go to the conference home page and wanted to read the description of what the ASA is doing, the first line mentions drone strikes in Yemen.

Yeah, yeah. I think what I have benefited from in the field of American Studies is a kind of deliteralization of our object, and that that deliteralization has allowed us to talk about things like the drone strikes as an inscription of the US. And it’s allowed us to talk about Cargill, for instance, and its multinational operations.

I often think about this song by Sweet Honey in the Rock called “Are My Hands Clean,” which is basically the story of a blouse. It says something like, “I wear garments touched by hands all over the world […] the journey begins […] in the cotton fields of El Salvador.” And then it tells the journey of this garment. And at the song’s end, she says, “And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse on sale for 20 percent discount. Are my hands clean?”

You can relate it to Marx — it’s the story of the commodity. The labor that goes into the production of the commodity, and all the journeys that it has to take in order to become a commodity. For me, in many ways, that song represents all the places that American Studies has to go in order to keep track of what America is and where it is.

In many ways, I think our job is to find out how many places America has gone and how many hands it has passed through, recognizing that the journey exceeds the boundaries of North America and the US.

This takes me to something I was thinking about in the theme "States of Emergence," and how the word “states” signals both a political unit and also an emotional or affective reality — I’ll often say, for instance, “I am in a state!”

You know if we’re thinking about In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens or The Combahee River Collective Statement — all of which I taught this semester! In a feminist theory undergraduate course where we also taught Gloria Anzaldúa, Hélène Cixous, Barbara Christian — what all of these writers make clear is that before there can be a kind of social transformation, there has to be a kind of revolution within the self. And you could dismiss that as a kind of liberalism, but it’s not!

I mean, one could, but I definitely wouldn’t! That would be so sad!

One of the things that they were geniuses about was to say: That’s stage one, and the other component is the social. So “states” is a way to capture that, the dialectic between the social and the subjective.

And going back to the quotation that I started with, it goes back to the question of care. Which is not always a word that goes with intellectual labor, but it’s very beautiful to think of scholarly work as a kind of caretaking, or rather to ask what it would mean to think of scholarly work as a kind of caretaking for the self and our students.

And also in terms of doing it right, as in taking care! You know, when I was writing my dissertation, I was trying to figure out what kind of standard I wanted to hold myself to when I sat down to write. And I thought: I would like to take as much care in writing this dissertation as granddaddy — my father’s father, Granddaddy Willie Marvin — took in cleaning fish. Or the amount of care that my mother’s mother, Grandma Willie Mae, used to make her lace handkerchiefs, that she sold to people. And I have always thought that that kind of will to integrity that we deliver to the work has to part of any progressive practice.

Or I think about my Gramps cleaning up a campsite. His motto was: You leave the campsite cleaner than you found it, and you leave wood for the next people, who might get there late and need to start a fire. He was a minister, but his camping ethics was always to me one of his most holy actions.

Totally — the belief that there’s something sacred about what you’re doing. And I believe that very much about my work, about how I try to work. Teaching is sacred. Writing is sacred. You know? Mentoring is sacred work.

Incidentally my grandfather was a preacher too, as you can probably tell from that last comment!

Yes, the feeling of being called!

Right, you don’t necessarily want to do it, but you’re called! And it’s not about ego or self-aggrandizement, it’s about making sure that a vision is delivered, in the way that a prophecy is delivered.

I’m imagining that your book title was “queer of color delivery.” Ministers and midwives, with the delivery! 

So that maybe can take me to a last question, which would be: What would you most like to see be delivered, or emerge, out of this convention — in general, or maybe in light of this moment in this national state, which the November timing of the conference always seems to comment on?

I think the thing I would most want to come out of this is that seeds will be planted that will emerge away from the conference — in whatever people’s local sites are. I think the conference is a way for those kinds of ideas and intervention to be planted and then taken and redistributed. That would be great; that would be enough. The conference is only a way to germinate new possibilities, or to multiply the applications, the ideas, questions, insights, that are produced at the conference. Then the conference would not be isolated from people’s local emergencies, but becomes a way for them to deliver certain responses to those emergencies.

It’s like another version of the blouse story — maybe not a reversal, but a retelling?

What is the thing that passes through the hand that doesn’t confirm your exploitation, but actually activates a sense of alternative to those exploitations? What if the blouse were the embodiment of the good news?

I believe very strongly that we can turn our work to the good news, and that doing so has a material effect. Lisa Lowe told me something years ago that I have always carried with me. She said: You know, the point isn’t to be brilliant in the work, the point is to write something that somebody else can use. And there’s real power in that seemingly humble and modest goal. If you write something that something can use, it’s like your grandfather leaving the wood for the fire. And for me that’s the “ingredient X” of success of my work. Just write something that someone can use.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Well, in these last couple of days there have been these attacks on queer and feminist scholarship, calling it “grievance studies,” and I think that part of what organizations like the ASA have to do is not to take the bait, and take all our energy responding to a politics of cynicism. Our job is really to turn back to the text, and to keep doing the work. Because the work is producing and encouraging. It’s producing the shots in the arm, it is producing the new types of subjects, and it is producing the new types of communities that didn’t know they could be communities. And that’s our job. That’s our job.


Sarah Mesle is senior editor at large at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.


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